An exquisitely crafted miniature about the creative rebirth of an aging sculptor, Fernando Trueba’s “The Artist and the Model” brings the same craft and care to its subject as its titular artist does to his own work. But although evergreen themes of life, art and desire are subtly probed, no revelations are forthcoming, and the result, though admirable, remains oddly remote. The kind of study fashioned expressly for the arthouse, the black-and-white pic has been acquired for North America by the Cohen Media Group, but auds attracted by Trueba’s reputation should know that this reps a departure for him.
The unhurried rhythms of Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort, a commanding, lugubrious presence throughout) as he sketches, carves and polishes set the pace for the whole. A former acquaintance of Matisse and Cezanne, Cros lives in virtual exile from the troubles of the 1940s in the rural beauty of the French Pyrenees.
Cros’ vivacious wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale), and Spanish housekeeper, Maria (Chus Lampreave), spot Catalan girl Merce (Aida Folch) sleeping in a doorway and take her home with them, rightly suspecting that she will make a good model for the creatively blocked sculptor.
Merce has fled Spain following Franco’s victory in the Civil War and has also escaped from a concentration camp for exiles. It later emerges that knowledge of the mountains enables her to help political activists escape from Spain to France. Encouraged by Lea, she agrees to model for Cros.
Much of the picture is taken up by the slowly developing bond between the two, as Cros finds his long-lost passion for art reawakened as he reveals to Merce the mysteries of creation. A couple of beautiful, inspiring minutes are devoted to Cros’ detailed analysis of a Rembrandt drawing of a child learning to walk, a scene that neatly unpacks the film’s dual perspective: On the one hand, Cros’ passionate attention to the drawing’s form, and on the other Merce’s insistence on reading the painting in terms of its connection to life. It is this connection that Cros has lost.
Occasionally, the outside world intrudes, mainly in the form of Pierre (Martin Gamet), a Resistance fighter whom Merce will help to escape, and Werner (Gotz Otto), an art historian and Nazi who visits Cros to discuss his craft.
“The best a man to do,” Cros opines, is to find “a quiet corner in which to live.” But his ivory-tower detachment from the world infects the attitudes of Trubeca and co-scripter Jean-Claude Carriere, as though they are also concerned about letting the messiness of politics intrude too strongly into the film’s highly stylized world. When the human weight of the film rests on the shoulders of a protag who’s chosen to escape life rather than live it, auds themselves will feel emotionally detached.
Rochefort’s compelling Cros becomes increasingly agitated as Merce awakens in him forgotten ideas and feelings, while Cardinale convinces as the endlessly supportive Lea. Cast as a rather wild force of nature without much personality of her own, Folch does well to hold her own against so much thesping experience, especially in a role that mostly involves posing naked; her earthy laugh is one of the pic’s hallmarks. Crowdpleasing humor is provided by popular Spanish vet and Almodovar stalwart Lampreave, comically peering out from behind glass-bottomed spectacles, just as she did in what must be the conceptual opposite to this film, Santiago Segura’s crude comedy “Torrente, the Dumb Arm of the Law.”
Use of black-and-white allows Cros’ work, whether charcoal sketches or sculptures, to radiate with fine intensity. Having sacrificed color in the shots of the stunning mountain scenery, lenser Daniel Vilar instead brings a painterly eye to the textures of the natural world. One of the pre-candidates for Spain’s foreign-language film Oscar submission, the pic is dedicated to renowned soundman Pierre Gamet, whose last film this is.